Raising the Sea-Drowned

by E. Saxey

Julian, the CEO, looms too large for the tiny office room. I look at his forehead, to avoid his intense eyes without seeming shifty, but end up mesmerised by the sheen on his slicked-back dark hair.

“Thanks for coming, Dilawar,” he says, and enfolds my hand in his, and I really feel like he means it. Posh boys are good at sounding sincere.

But he knows bugger all about the job he’s interviewing me for. They want to recruit some kind of multi-skilled monster: someone who can do front-end, back-end, interaction design. Body of a lion, wings of an eagle, head of a recent Computer Science graduate. This hasn’t reduced my interview nerves, because now I have to demonstrate my knowledge without showing up their ignorance.

“One last question, Dilawar,” Julian says. “What did you dream about last night?”

That rattles me. I had a bad night, last night, and maybe it shows.

No, it can’t be. They’re asking daft pop-psych interview questions because they know nothing about coding. I can’t tell them what I really dreamed (a proper nasty one, flavoured by my recent final exams: the question paper in Russian, the exam hall full of blood and frogs). I’d sound batty.

“I dreamed my database had flooded,” I lie. “I was bailing it out.”

Julian turns to the Chief Financial Officer, Nathan, and raises his eyebrows. I hope they have an understanding, I hope that means: “Check out this kid! We should employ him forthwith!”

Nathan has a cat-like face – wide with a pointy chin, amused and unreadable. He seems just as posh as Julian but more sly. “Anyway, Dilawar, we’ll let you know.”

I don’t have high hopes. I’m a short Pakistani kid from Yorkshire in a cheap suit.

That same evening, Nathan phones.

“We’d like to offer you the job of Chief Technical Officer.”

The fact that they want me as CTO tells me that their company will fold within six months.

“Can I ask what the salary is?”

“What salary?”


“Just a joke. I’ll be honest, we’re not paying much at the moment, but you’d get equity. Shares in the company.”

I’ve been on a student budget. I can stay on it a bit longer. I don’t want money, I want to find my passion. I quite like SciFi, and board games, but I don’t have big enthusiasms (apart from coding, and that never made anybody more interesting). I need to make sure my job’s fascinating or I’ll end up really flipping dull.

Now this place – Silicon Roundabout – boils with enthusiasm. This start-up could be my passion. Couldn’t it? It’s got a charismatic front-man, in Julian; I could be the maverick back-room boy genius. I’d be working for a start-up in Shoreditch. I’d have my finger on the pulse, or the bleeding edge, or some other throbbing, spurting place.

But they want me to build a social network. Does anyone want another social network? My Mam (keeping her fingers crossed for me back home in Haxby) would rather see me in a bank. Somewhere with a bit of security.

“Yes. I accept. When would I start?”

“Tomorrow? Come in at eleven. Have a lie-in, do some customer research.”

I don’t get the joke. Then he tells me what they want me to build.

They’re making a social network for dreams.

* * *

I retrace my steps through Shoreditch the next day. I’m just as nervous as I was for the interview. I wish Julian and Nathan weren’t trying to sell dreams. I’m really bad at dreams. Well, I’m good at bad dreams. Constantly having nightmares, where I can’t breathe or move, and dark things are approaching me. I used to take medication for it.

I brace myself and hop up the concrete stairwell, and re-enter the small attic office. Nathan wriggles out from behind his desk to greet me.

“Dilawar. You made it.”

“Call me Dil.”

“Ah. Call me Nate. And we’re called ‘Sandpit’.” Nate says it as though he’s picking a hair out of his teeth. “After the Sandman. But playful.” I guess Julian the CEO chose the name.

Two desks are jammed in opposite corners but still hardly leave space to pass in between them. I wonder how we all fit in. “And what do I call Julian?”

“Oh, call him whatever you like. He won’t hear you from here.”


“He has a job.” Nathan waves South. “At Canary Wharf. He’s in finance. His income from that job funds Sandpit. So he’s not around much – drops by in the evenings.”

So we have a part-time CEO. That can’t be ideal. The way Nate talks about Julian – annoyed, resigned – makes me wonder if the posh boys of the C-suite are also dating one another.

Nate starts scraping one of the desks clear of paperwork. He’s wearing jeans. I won’t wear this suit, tomorrow. When I told Mam I’d found a job, she offered me a hundred quid towards a work wardrobe. I can buy raw denim jeans and a couple of Doctor Who T-shirts. That’s how a maverick CTO dresses.

Nate offers me a chair so luxurious, compared to the rest of the office, that I wonder if Julian’s stolen it from his day job, ridden it across the East End on its tiny castors.

“Nice chair,” I say.

“They’re left over from the last company that Julian and I started.”

I decide to ignore Nate’s cynical asides. By noon, I’ve bent that rule, or I wouldn’t be able to hold a conversation with him at all.

He talks me through the grand Sandpit plan. “So our users record their dreams, read other people’s dreams, share them, do – social stuff with them. You’ll have a better idea of what’s possible.”

I can make it function. Probably. Stick in all the structures, connect them up nicely. But will anyone want to use it? Aren’t other people’s dreams kind of boring? I was teaching a class on Baroque music and my old boyfriend was there but he was my Dad, too, and the funny thing is that I don’t know any Baroque music! Ha ha ha. It’s the ultimate ‘you should have been there!’ – you can’t ever have been there.

I shouldn’t say anything like that to Nate. It’s my first day on my first job.

I say: “Do you think it’ll catch on?”

Nate gives me a long, dry look. “Well, we certainly hope so.”

“It’s just – you know when someone tells you about a dream they’ve had?” I wonder how to put it politely.

“You should talk to Julian about that,” he says.

We start to sketch the architecture of the site.

I head out at lunchtime to explore. On the side of our 1960s office block, a neon spray-painted slogan straggles up the wall: what you do today will transform the world. Is that motivational, or menacing?

The office is in the heart of Shoreditch, a short trudge from Silicon Roundabout itself. It’s a gold-rush town, a dream town, you can smell the optimism like sea air. I peer up at the windows of the big brick-built Victorian blocks that line the roads. Where do the big-name start-ups live? The ones with headline sales to Facebook or Google, making their founders into millionaires? They can’t be in the boarded-up buildings, graffiti’d with giant squid, and with weeds – no, trees – growing out of their roofs. If this place is so cool, why is it so scruffy?

I buy a cream cheese bagel from the twenty-four hour bagel store. It is reassuringly solid and old-fashioned. When I bite into it, cream cheese squirts onto my shirt.

Julian sweeps in that evening, making the office seem even smaller. “Dil! Welcome on board. How’s it going? Let’s have dinner. It’s on me.”

He leads us to a Vietnamese café, hipsters lining the long canteen tables. I order the cheapest thing on the menu, and spool noodles into my mouth as Nate itemises the territory we’ve covered that day.

I screw up my courage. “Julian, I was wondering about dreams – you know, whether they’re the best thing to be using? I mean, when someone tells me about a dream they’ve had, it’s…” I consider my next words carefully: Banal? Embarrassing? Icky?

“It’s amazing, isn’t it? Such an insight. It’s got everything the Internet’s missing at the moment – imagination, intimacy, yeah? It’s big, Dil, but I know you can handle it.”

Past Julian’s shining eyes, I see Nate smirking.

* * *

I work from eight to eight, at least, every day. Stick a little model of Ganesh on the top of my monitor, because I’m removing obstacles. London buzzes all round me, but I’m oblivious. I could go to clubs I’ve only ever heard of – Popstarz, or Kali. Or a gay gamers night! Somewhere out there, cute boys in Threadless T-shirts are starting a round of Netrunner. but I don’t. Even supported by my luxurious chair, I start to ache. I hammer out the structures of the Sandpit site late into the night. I creep home to my box room in a rowdy shared house and I dream really badly: mainly vertigo and smothering.

I’m following my passion.

I get better at everything, but Nate and Julian don’t know enough to notice. I resent Nate in particular, because he’s right there, and I can hone my disgruntlement. Julian is absent too much for me to resent him.

We don’t have any dreams yet, so as I build my first version of the site I fill it up with printer’s Latin, the traditional place-holder text: Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet and so on. I get curious and look up what it means: no-one seeks pain for its own sake.

One day, I come back from lunch and there’s a young woman with an afro and heavy specs, sitting at my desk. “How do you want it?” she says. “Cheeky, friendly? Commanding?” She sounds deathly serious and isn’t talking to me.

“Ah, Dilawar.” Julian’s squeezed in next to Nate. “This is Monifa. She’s going to give us a voice.” He’s so sincere, so thankful. “We want it to be neutral, Monifa. We’re not appealing to any demographic.”


Julian cuts off Monifa’s objection. “Neutral. Everyone has dreams!”

When Nate and Julian go out for lunch, Monifa rattles away on Nate’s computer. After ten minutes, she says: “There’s no such thing as a ‘neutral’ voice, you know.”

“Fair enough.”

“‘Neutral’ is an elitist myth.”

“Oh, aye?”

“It’s true. I’ve got a degree in sociolinguistics but they never listen to me.”

“What will you do, if you can’t do ‘neutral’?”

“Oh, I can knock together something. I know what Julian likes.”

We’ve only just met, but it’s a relief to speak to someone apart from the founders. “I think they think they’re ‘neutral’. Julian and Nate, I mean. I think they haven’t noticed they’re…”

“Rich? Uh huh. You know I did a bit of work for their last company?”

I try not to feel excluded. I won’t ask what their last company was. “Was that neutral too?”

“Like porridge. It’s a shame – I really need to write something distinctive. Put my stamp on a brand, use it as a calling card. Are they paying you properly?”

“Not much. I’ve got shares.”

“Ha. Bits of paper.”

“I think, to be fair…”


“…they’re not even bits of paper.”

Monifa winces with sympathy. “Poor boy. I remember last time…”

I try some Silicon Roundabout bravado. “Last time they didn’t have me.”


I wonder about the proto-me, the coder they employed last time.

Monifa hammers away for a week or so, dutifully drafting dozens of boring messages to our future members. Letters to nobody. My skeleton site feels like those shopping malls in China, echoing and empty, built for a boom that’s waning.

Monifa’s there, peering over my shoulder, as I show Nate our first bits of functionality. The dreamstream: a continuous feed of other people’s dreams, selected by keywords. The dreamscape: a cluster of images, pulled in from other sites, to illustrate users’ dreams.

Nate says, “Won’t that be wall-to-wall spiders and celebrities?”

“There’ll be a box for users to tick if their dreams are nightmares. So other users can avoid them.” I’ve made that up on the spot, but it’s a good idea.

“Or ask for them specifically,” Nate says. “Settle down with a takeaway. Chicken jalfrezi and death by carnivorous toads.”

I start to think of my site not as an empty mall, but as the Forbidden City.

Monifa says, “You’d better have a good harassment policy in place.”

My heart sinks. “Sorry?”

“Well, there are laws, aren’t there? Can dreams be defamation? Or stalking? Or revenge porn.”

Nate gives her a thin smile. “We’re working on all that.”

“Copyright, too,” says Monifa. “People might try to pass published stuff off as their own dreams.”

That’s simpler to solve. I make a note to create a plagiarism filter, matching against other online sources.

When Monifa leaves the office, Nate says, “Damn. I’ll get legal advice.”

“Right you are.” I feel a bit sick. It works so nicely, as it is: Tim User is friends with Iman User, and they admire one another’s lorem ipsum dreams. I don’t want to let in strangers to ruin it.

“Can you set up anything to prevent – all that stuff Monifa mentioned?”

“I don’t think so.” I don’t have the ingenuity that comes from malice. I remember a computer game I had as a kid: the players couldn’t physically attack one another, so bullies herded my avatar into a corner and built a wall round me. “What we really need,” I say, “is a load of complete bastards. Let them loose on a test site and tell them to ruin it.”

“But this is Shoreditch, Dil. Shoreditch. How could we find these digitally-literate arseholes?”

We cross the road to the Reliance, a dark old East End boozer packed with Silicon jetsam, underemployed, here for the buzz. Nate gazes around the gloom, holding a silent audition. Within half an hour we’ve hired the anti-testers. We can’t give them office space, so they take our money and shove off to someone’s flat.

I sleep even worse, that night. My usual visions of paralysis and approaching teeth are inter-cut with scenes where drunk testers abuse my lovely site (which appears variously as a walled garden, a cupcake shop, my Mam’s flat).

They send a report in the morning describing their creative attempts to break laws and social mores. They’ve circumvented my blocking protocols, cracked my anonymisation and harassed one another with glee.

I am not in love with any of this.

* * *

When my city’s built, we open the gates, and launch in Beta.

The dreams trickle in all day. Epics by exhibitionists and notes by minimalists. People dictate their dreams into our app, and the dreams are converted to text (if you’re shy about your voice, or hiding your identity) or uploaded as audio (if you want to show off your mellow tones). Or you can type, if you’re old school.

I don’t have time to read any of them. I fix and patch and note further problems. I eat at my desk – I can hardly swallow – and watch the total words in the database swelling.

“More than War and Peace,” says Nate. “That’s good.”


“Good sound-bite. Monifa’s writing our press releases. She’s got a list of classics; I’m keeping an eye out for when we overtake them. ‘Twice the length of all the Harry Potter books’, ‘Four times the Bible’. Maybe not that. Too blasphemous. How long would it take to read the dreams, so far?”

“I dunno.” I doodle hastily in a corner of a spreadsheet. “Six years. No – hang on – seven weeks?”

“Damn it, Dil…”

Nate would never misplace a decimal point. He has infallible spreadsheets, calculating the possible revenues for different numbers of users and hits. Dollar signs spin in his eyes. Behind him hovers Julian, more suave but just as avaricious.

At the end of the first day, the three of us blink at the stats. Is it enough?

“How many users do we have?” Julian asks.

“Twenty times more than we estimated,” says Nate.

My chest swells. Is this pride? It feels like panic. “That’s amazing.”

Julian echoes me. “Amazing, yeah.”

Nate sighs over his spreadsheet. “Pity. I was hoping for ‘cocking unbelievable’.”

* * *

We are a hit. We trend. We’re mentioned up on other social networks, and spread: like contamination, like wildfire, like something that’s nicer than those but faster. Like friendly fire? I give Ganesh a Rolo, blu-tack the chocolate to the monitor beside him, because he’s working hard for me.

All that weekend I dream of falling.

Julian strides into the office on Monday morning and slaps a sheaf of London free papers and colour supplements on our desks. I weed through the usual scare stories – scrounger kids in drugs death plunge – to find the fluff. We are the fluff.

“We can get some decent ad income, now,” says Julian. “And we need a better office.”

We move into part of a converted Victorian warehouse. Its iris recognition lock disdains to recognise me, but once someone lets me inside, I have an L-shaped desk in a big sunlit room I share with Nate. Floorboards, potted plants, a complicated coffee machine. Julian has a separate room, with a door. He shuts it.

I buy some proper shirts, with collars.

On my way to and from the office, I see our users in the wild, mumbling into our app while walking or typing with their thumbs on the train.

The press call us The Dream Team. They say we’re following our dreams. Julian encourages this, and it infuriates me. I still find dreams half trivial, half horrible. The headlines – ‘living the dream’ – keep confusing the categories: wanting something a lot isn’t dreaming it; working for something definitely isn’t dreaming it. I resent the comparison of my hard grind to our users’ weird nocturnal spurts.

One reporter wants to title his interview “They Have a Dream.” I beg him not to.

He asks me what my account name is, on Sandpit. I don’t have one. I didn’t even think of starting one – but the founder of Twitter’s on Twitter, right? I can’t make my dreams public. Lately, I’ve been waking at four in my pitch-black box room, and I can’t bear to fall asleep again. I stumble down to the lounge, praying that there’ll be someone still awake, playing video games. Someone human.

If Julian insists I get a Sandpit account, I’ll pay Monifa to ghost-write it for me.

The press want to know what dreams are. We show them some dreams. They say: but what are dreams?

“Get Monifa to give us a briefing,” Julian instructs.

Monifa comes to the new office, and tells us about neuroscience, psychoanalysis, mysticism. She shows us slides. It’s good stuff. I latch on to phrases, hoping to get a real enthusiasm for dreams. Dreams work by compression, substitution and metaphor. Dreams are the Royal Road to the unconscious mind. I’m not sure I like that last one. What things might stampede down a Royal road?

“Dreams are also politically radical,” Monifa tells us. “Allen Ginsberg said that consensus reality was a coercive tool, so the individuality of dreams is a form of resistance.”

“We’re not political,” murmurs Julian. Monifa gives him a heavy stare from behind her heavy spectacles. “Sorry, do go on.”

“I’m done.”

“Thank you!” says Julian. “It’s good to know these things.” He squeezes Monifa’s shoulder. What the heck is that? He’s turning into a patronising dad. “But Sandpit is not going to hold an opinion on what dreams are.”


“We can’t tell people what their dreams are about!”

“Hard not to develop an outlook, though.” Nate is getting prickly. “That’s like selling eggs and pretending we don’t know what eggs are.” We’re not selling dreams, but I don’t get in between them when they’re fighting. “Even a child would have an opinion on…”

“Keep it to it to yourself!” snaps Julian. “This is important, guys.” He paces back into his room, shaking his head.

“Give it a rest, Dad,” I mutter as his door closes. Nate smirks, and Monifa invites me to the pub.

* * *

“It’s like they still want to be as bland as possible,” says Monifa, as I hand her a pint.

“Aye. It’s a brand value. Not having a position is our most strongly-held position.”

“They did that in their last two companies. Didn’t save them,” she says darkly. She wants me to ask, so she can show off her insider knowledge.

I change the subject. “So, are Julian and Nate dating?”

Monifa splutters into her pint. “Why? Do you fancy one of them?”

“Give over! Why is Nate still working with Julian, if he gets so pissed off with him?”

“His CV looks shit. They’ve had two companies fold, so Nate needs this one to work. And Julian’s got the money to support it.”

“Oh. Well, we’ve got some possible income, now. Adult advertising, porn and that. Your wildest dreams!”

“Oh, Dil. They can’t do that. There’s no point in having a neutral style if you’re going to put tits on the front page.”

I see her point, and I say I’ll try to change Julian’s mind. I rehearse arguments to myself, but I keep tripping over double entendres: we shouldn’t hold a position, we shouldn’t take a stance…

Then I feel grubby, and I don’t want to talk about Sandpit any more. I look around the pub for people I know from the other start-ups. Everyone round here is working on such terrible tat. Gadgets that quantify the user’s every nap and side-dish (which are supposed to help people change their ways, but just help them sharpen their anxieties). Services that make you feel creative without doing any work. A watch that will tell you if you’re in love. A cushion that really likes to be squeezed.

I’m tearful. I’ve been working so hard and I’m not sure that Sandpit isn’t terrible tat, too.

“You OK, Dil?”

“Bit knackered.”

“Come back to my place and watch a film. We can buy chips on the way.”

This is the night I fall in love.

* * *

I end up sleeping at Monifa’s house. She lives in a house where everyone crochets, so I’m under a kind of woolly net on the sofa.

I dream of Atlantis, am captured by fish-men, and speared by a trident. I wake when I fall off the sofa and hit the floor, trussed in the wool net and thrashing.

I can’t sleep again. I want to hear a friendly voice but I can’t wake anyone. I pull up my laptop, put in my ear buds and turn on a dreamstream of audio files uploaded by our users. I tinker a bit – search by keywords, set up a sea-themed dream-stream to soothe away the nightmares.

I filter out the fears of drowning, and enjoy the joys of swimming. Exploring and floating with no need to breathe. There’s a lot of marine-themed material on the site. Perhaps it crops up so often because dreaming itself is like an undersea world: different laws of physics, unknown currents, weird inhabitants. You submerge yourself in it each night and clamber back up the beach each morning.

I set my laptop on the floor and lie down again.

To enter the dreams is to fall into a whirlpool. The voices are a variety of pitches and accents, but they have a curious similarity of tone. It’s the kind of uniformity Monifa helped us to achieve as a company, but there’s no style guide for dreams. The tone is detached but intense. It is like a witness report of a crime. It’s compelling.

I doze. I don’t have nightmares. I dream of a sea that’s misted, milky, which churns and churns. What’s stirring it? Some thick sinuous agitator whipping back and forth in the depths. Don’t look too closely. Look at the ocean, instead, and its creamy waves, because marvellous things will arise from it. Intensely sweet things…

Monifa, hair in a morning halo, peers down at me. “You look happy.”

“I slept really well.”

“That’s a really good sofa. Want some coffee?”

The dreams meander on.

It’s then, in that half-waking daze, that I fall in love. No single dream is enough to lure me in, but together… It’ll be so gorgeous and so massive. I don’t mean money. I mean the database, and its possibilities: the shapes and truths I can draw up from it, the paths and webs I can create within it. What you do today will transform the world.

Lying on Monifa’s sofa, I also love the whole of Silicon Roundabout. Every shoddy start-up. The trains passing overhead on concrete viaducts in the dark, flashing and clunking. The promise of the infinitely quantifiable, connectible, social-local-mobile perfectible world.

“Monifa, why do the dreams all sound similar?”

She tells me, over breakfast, how groups of texts establish norms. Problem pages, suicide notes, graffiti slogans. When you come to write in a genre, the genre guides you. I’m too sleepy to understand. It’s like a fairytale bedtime story: the magic book, that writes you as you read it.

“It’s odd, though,” Monifa says. “I wouldn’t have thought your users have had time to learn from one another.”

Monifa leaves me again and I listen to the dreams: words without weight, insistent but ephemeral, like sparks.

Why do I fall so wholeheartedly? Why now? Only the previous week I’d thought about how Silicon Roundabout was originally a joke name, and that Sandpit was probably a joke company, hitching itself to a joke boom. But I get sucked in despite that. Perhaps I fall to justify the sunk cost: I tell myself I wouldn’t have worked so hard, for so little pay, if I didn’t believe in it. No-one seeks pain for its own sake. But I have worked that hard, so I must believe in it, right? I must love it.

And falling in love gives me the energy I need for the next long slog.

* * *

Love carries me forwards faster but it doesn’t smooth the path. I sleep so much better – as long as I listen to other peoples’ dreams as I drift off, I don’t have nightmares. But my improved sleep just allows me to focus better at work. I love Sandpit, but my general love for Shoreditch evaporates, reverts to cynicism; like most people round here, I’ve become a monomaniacal arsehole, who knows that my start-up is excellent, and that yours is tragically bad.

Julian keeps pushing me to enable cross-platform integration, so our users can share their dreams across social networks. One afternoon, as soon as Julian leaves for lunch, I scoot over to Nathan’s desk.

“Nathan: nobody wants cross-platform integration.”

“Is this an excuse? I mean, if you can’t do it…” He’s peeved that I talked Julian out of running the adult ads.

“Nah, I’ve implemented it. But nobody’s using it. They don’t tie their Sandpit account to their Twitter, or Facebook, or Grindr…”

“It’s social software,” Nate says, with panic in his voice. “Make it socialise, Dil!”

But I can’t, and I freak out, until the morning that Julian drops a newspaper into my lap. “The Guardian compared us to an STD check.”

My gut turns over. I’m going to be fired. There’s so much left undone.

“Great work, Dil!” Clunk on my desk. Julian’s giving me a bottle of whisky.

I run my eyes over the article. Sharing your Sandpit username is the new step in personal intimacy! Third date, or earlier? Before or after the first kiss?

I drink some of the whisky that night and think about my beloved, my dataset. What is it for? Screening partners, social ritual? (Imaginary Julian nods in full-on Dad mode: “We can’t tell people what dreams are for, Dil.”) Is it perhaps not for sharing, at all? Is it just shouting into an abyss? (And letting the abyss, presumably, shout into us?) I let the dreamstream massage my ears while I ponder. I listen to the dreams most of the time, now. I use more piquant keywords for when I’m working, for a pick-me-up. But tonight, something spacey to help me unwind. I find a lot of the dreams are talking about collapse, things falling apart – sometimes you get a run like that. I chase the feeling from dream to dream.

I don’t fear the dreams, now. I remember how squeamish I used to be, but that’s all gone.

I pour a third glass. It tastes vile to me, but knowing Julian, it’s expensive. What a waste. Could I swap it for something cheaper that I actually enjoy? I’m amused by that idea. Really amused – chuckling at my own cheap tastes. Maybe I’m drunk, maybe I’m vain. Or maybe everyone’s smug about their quirks, their Unique Selling Points.

I make a leap sideways, a connection: maybe the dream database is about knowing yourself better.

So we don’t need to hook up to the social networks. We shouldn’t want to! We should integrate with the other tools of self-knowledge: the exercise armbands, the mood quizzes.

The next day I create a dashboard of correspondences and coincidences. I start off with graphs, but they’re too dull. I pester Monifa by phone to come in and work on it.

“Is there money involved?”

“There’s prestige! It’s cutting edge!”

“There needs to be money.”

“Nate, can we have some money?”

Nate coughs up, and Monifa writes outputs in a conversational style: “Did you notice you dream of [dogs] whenever you visit [Glasgow]?” “Your dreams are less [anxious] when you [jog] [an hour] before you go to sleep.”

I invite a few select users to connect their dreams to other parts of their inner lives.

They love it. They rush to hook up more of their personal devices to their Sandpit account – their e-readers, their cookery blogs. “You dream of [running] after you read [zombie poetry].” “You have more [adult] dreams after you eat [chilli].”

(Some of the rumours aren’t true. Nobody’s dashboard ever said “You’re happier when you drink more.”)

The users are delighted.

Julian is a proud parent. “Marvellous. This’ll help with the revenue stream, eh, Nate?”

* * *

“God, people are so literal,” says Nathan.

He’s researching possible sources of income. Julian’s been yanking us in two directions, lately: we need to invest, expand, make sure the product’s right. Oh, but we also need to make money, right now! Often, it becomes a straight split between Nate and me: Dil, take all the time you need to grow the brand. Nate, where’s my cash?

We don’t want to go for a funding round, because we’d have to give up some equity in the company, and the two of them are hanging on to that like grim death. We want the big buy-out, we want the yacht. But we need income right now.

So it’s back to the ads. The companies willing to pay a premium for our unique proposition aren’t classy: cheese manufacturers, mystics offering dream analysis, the makers of sedative teas and anxiety meds. Mattresses, both memory-foam and the old-fashioned amnesia kind.

“Doesn’t anyone want to be a bit more creative – like, actually work with the dataset?” I ask.

“We had a clothes company. They want to find out what a ‘dream dress’looks like.”

I crack open a laptop and search the dreams for “dress”. She was wearing a white dress which turned out to be a sheep, it was eating her. I click on one of the user audio files, instead. A woman’s voice, a Swiss accent. “I was wearing a red dress, with seed pearls along the bodice…

“That’s her dream dress,” I say. I’m charmed and cheered. It seems magical to pull an object across from the dream world and make it tangible, wearable.

I was dressed that way because I was to be shot. I was pushed up against the sooty wall and the squid soldiers”

Nathan slams my laptop shut. “So. Three guesses why I don’t want to talk to the dream holiday company?”

“What about dream weddings?”

Nathan shudders. He returns to his angry research, fingers on his keyboard rattling like machine guns.

He’s stressed. I’m affronted. Why is nobody asking my database the right questions? What would those questions even be?

* * *

That month, we have two kinds of interest.

One is, at worst, only unprofitable: the art students.

“We’ve got invitations to private views,” says Julian. “Slade, Central St Martins and Goldsmiths.”

I can’t wait to see what they’ve done with our dreams.

On a hot summer night, I step into the converted chapel and I see the texts of dreams projected onto curtains of swaying metal chains, elusive and protean. Then, a poignant high note calls me away, and I stumble into a dark room to find students chanting dreams as they writhe in bright yellow heaps of spice powder. Elsewhere, an artist has inscribed dream words onto paper flowers and is burning them in a font.

Drops of cool water hit my overheated head. It is a baptism, a miraculous indoor rainfall.

Klaxons shriek, and I realise: it is the sprinkler system, triggered by the idiot with the font bonfire, and we are all evacuated.

Weird weavings hang down the outside of the church, and Julian is taking the opportunity to be photographed next to them. He beckons me over and pulls me in: family photo time.

“This is fantastic, Dil, isn’t it? Super creative. Stand next to Nate.”

Nate is talking through a gritted grin. “But it doesn’t make us any money. It doesn’t get us any closer to the sea-drowned.”

He’s lost it. “To what?” I ask.

“Seed round funding! Art doesn’t help us…”

Julian shushes as though Nate is being vulgar, as though Julian won’t demand a revenue report from him the next morning.

I stand in the hot night outside the packed church-cum-gallery and I’m exhilarated. These projects are the equivalent of crude beakers made from river clay – but now the idea is there, someone will invent thrown pots, and discover firing. Someone will use my dataset elegantly. Someone will make bone china.

I pick up a glass of red wine that nearly turns my mouth inside out, gulp it down. A waifish woman artist with shining eyes tops up my glass.

“You’re with Sandpit, right?” she says.

“I am.” CTO, baby! “That’s me.”

“You’re the people who predicted that earthquake in Tokyo.”

I shouldn’t get annoyed. “That’s a myth.” A couple of weeks ago, an earthquake hit Japan. A genuine tragedy – real people, actually dead. Then someone decided death and tragedy weren’t enough, and looked at Sandpit and embroidered a lot of pseudo-scientific cobblers. We’d predicted the earthquake! Our users had felt it coming. Big fights among conspiracy theorists, fat headlines in the worst tabloids, office phone ringing all day. I’d asked Nate: “Can we put out a statement?”

“Only if it’s ‘fuck off, you fucking vultures.’” Julian had understandably vetoed that wording.

But the waifish woman is insistent. “People found patterns in your dreams, though, right?”

“You can find anything in dreams.”

She tuts and moves away, and I realise she might have been chatting me up. I’m numb to advances. There’s flesh on show, in the art and around it. The students like the sex dreams. I tell myself that I am married to my dataset. But I realise that no, I am the dataset’s nice-guy chum, giving the death-stare to its suitors, whining that nobody understands its potential like I do.

What is its potential, anyway?

I hear the high sweet note again, and follow it to a dim corridor, enjoying the quiet and the coolness. The corridor stretches into darkness, into the body of the chapel, and I can’t see the end of it – it’s an artwork in itself, it makes me feel (lightheaded from wine) that it might end anywhere or nowhere.

Something shifts in the dark, something rough is dragged against the stone floor. Then a wet slap. Slide-slap, slide-slap, a lopsided mime artist. Coming nearer. I’m ready. I’ve seen all sorts of things, at the other student art shows. I don’t speak – it’s polite to stay quiet, for this kind of performance.

The corridor smells of salt. The wall is damp. I move to one side and feel a squishing mass, like wet peat, underfoot.

It’s too dark to make out the performer, although there’s movement low down, things flickering and flailing.

I feel fear hatch in my stomach.

Well, it’s a good show, then, I tell myself. A very effective piece. Congratulations to the artist – shouldn’t I be able to see the artist, by now? Is the darkness deepening at that end of the corridor, so he stays in the dark even while he advances? A lighting trick. It’s messing with my balance, too, like an eddy of air is tugging me down the corridor.

Perhaps it’s not part of the show at all, just an art student with a limp. Silly to be judgmental, stupid to be afraid of a perfectly ordinary person, who just…

I can’t finish that sentence, and another thought fills the gap: it’s not human, though, is it?

And fear claws up from my gut and into my throat.

More dragging sounds, now. Pattering, as well as slapping. More than one set of feet.

My wineglass smashes on the floor and that breaks my paralysis. My legs stutter, but they’re back under my control, and I run from the corridor and out of the church. I push through the crowd.

I vomit pink bile into a university rubbish bin. I wipe my face and check around me, that Julian hasn’t seen, that none of the artists are filming.

When I’ve stopped shaking, I get pretty scathing. The art’s derivative tripe that’s only interested in sex and nightmares, that has to terrify the viewers to have any effect. I wish I’d thrown up on some of the exhibits. It looks terribly clever but really, it’s not doing anything with our dreams that couldn’t be done with Shakespeare, or the words from the back of a cornflake box. There’s a true potential – for visualisation, for re-presentation – and it’s not even been touched by these self-centred shock-merchants.

On the train on the way home, I decide to do better. I’ll teach myself data analysis. I will make myself into the suitor my database deserves. It’s a mad vow, because when do I have time to do that? But I swear (on the many bird-headed naked anime women I have seen tonight) that I will rescue my dataset from shit art.

* * *

The other kind of interest we get is actively hazardous.

Julian has been hinting at a new investor. Big money. And a whiff of – power? Influence?

The morning after the art show, I get a call at seven a.m. I’m not at my best, but I’m a trouper, so I’m nearly at the office. “Spend the day out of town, Dil,” says Julian.

Then I see journos surrounding our office doorstep, adjusting their cameras.

I carry my fragile head back down the road to Old Street Station, duck into the tube, make my way up to Stratford and take a train to Southend-on-Sea. Why not? I’ve never been, and nobody would look for me there, on the beach.

Julian probably expects me to find a seafront chip-shack with WiFi and keep working away on my laptop. I rebel: I’ll walk the pier, I’ll ride the donkeys. I’ll have a bloody day off. It’s been long enough.

But I don’t stop thinking about Sandpit. I see patterns of data in the breaking waves, the milling tourists, the swarming starlings when dusk finally comes at nine in the evening. I run nightmares through my earpieces as I ride the Adventure Island rollercoaster, listening to deaths by drowning and hurtling towards the sea.

There’s only a small picture of Julian in the evening newspapers, and his statement: “Sandpit has not been in discussions of a commercial nature with the government. We have, however, talked with ministers about how to support thriving, innovative small businesses.”

Julian’s been paddling in deep waters. I wonder if Monifa wrote that for him. I phone her. “What’s up?”

“Oh, Dil. Where are you?”

“Southend. You?”

“Julian promised me a hundred quid if I left town and didn’t talk to anyone. I hope he pays up, I’ve been in a pub in Brighton most of the day.”

“You should have called! We could have had a day at the seaside, together.”


“What’s going on?”

“It’s Tokyo. The government wants to know if it’s true.”

“The earthquake?” I’m pricked with annoyance, again. Third-rate shitty mysticism, obscuring the possibilities of what my database could actually do. (My own doubt mockes me: Aye, but what can it do, Dil, really?) “Tokyo was bollocks, though. Wasn’t it? I mean, the idea that we knew anything about Tokyo was bollocks.”

“Then it’s an excuse. For the government to get involved. Use Sandpit for tracking, monitoring….”

“Oh. Well, that’s better.”

“No it’s not! It’s worse! God, Dil.” She talks about Ginsberg, and the fascism of consensus reality, and how I can’t have been listening when she did her presentation. I drift off a bit, thinking that she should be the one working out why my database is useful. She’s clever and she knows politics, psychology, all that. I only know code. “The government’s probably cross-referencing our users with all the personal data they hold on them. Extending their surveillance state to the bloody subconscious.”

“I suppose,” I say. “But – how? I mean, really?” What on earth would the government do with my dataset? Use sweet dreams as an index of national contentment? Count the number of nightmares about immigration, swinging their policies to the right because of a rash of night-sweats? Call in drone strikes on seditious dreamers?

“I bet Julian didn’t see a problem with it, either. I’m getting pretty fed up with being Sandpit’s unpaid corporate ethics advisor, Dil.”

She hangs up on me. A moment later, I think: We can’t work with the government! We’d scare away all the cool advertisers.

If I’d said that to Monifa she’d have been furious for months.

* * *

At least my day off has made our next step clear to me.

“Nate, we need to hire a data visualiser.”

“Can’t you do it?”


“Can I do it? Probably not. Look, I’m supposed to be raising revenue, not wasting money.”

“And I’m supposed to be growing the brand! This is a brilliant innovation!”

“OK, boy wonder. Julian! Can we afford a data visualizer?”

Julian leans out of his office. “Why do we need it?”

I try to phrase it in Julian’s terms. “We’ve got Monifa for the words. But words aren’t the only language, Julian.”

“Aren’t they?”

“Dreams are pictures. We need to be pictures, too, yeah?” He’s too easy to impersonate. I mustn’t overdo it.

“I like it. Nate, see if we can spare a few grand.”

Nate eyes me with hate.

A new desk in a corner of the office, and a data artist called Angharad (Welsh, wearing floaty scarves) takes up residence for a month. She adds an awesome visual dimension to my dials-and-words dashboard. New ways of perceiving: dream-data as waves, dream-data as clouds of starlings.

It looks so sweet, so sunny. I show Monifa but she sniffs at it, suspecting a deliberate attempt to hide darker purposes.

I build sinuous links between dreams. We don’t need crude tags, now; a phrase, or a mood, can spark a chain of connection. I watch users follow five, ten, twenty links suggested by us, into unknown dream territory. I create links led by dream logic: compression, substitution, metaphor.

It makes me embarrassed about our previous functionality, as though I’ve been peddling art-show red wine when I could have been mixing sophisticated cocktails.

My new work attracts a potential income stream.

“Julian’s got someone visiting.” Nathan frantically sweeps his desk clear of accumulated crisp packets. “In ten minutes’ time. Someone might want to give us money.”


“Get the pitch deck ready,” Nathan says, and I’m so nervous I forget what it means, and wonder where on a ship you find the pitch deck.

“Who is it?”

“Daddy won’t tell me.”

Julian and Nate fight all the time. It makes me nervous. A “good fail” would be one thing; I could work elsewhere. But to have all this potential pissed up the wall by bickering? That would be a disaster.

The doorbell rings and Nate springs to answer it. Into the office, graceful and smiling, walks a particularly fine specimen of posh boy. Cream linen suit. A few character lines in his face, floppy blonde hair.

Julian ushers him in and shuts the door behind them.

“You should have helped me bug his room,” says Nate.

We’re summoned half an hour later. Julian is fizzing. “Now, I’ll talk numbers with Nathan, and Oliver…” The posh boy nods hello. “You’ll chat with Dilawar about technical implementation. Dil, Oliver likes the visual presentation of data.”

That sounds promising. Oliver sits in Nate’s chair. “So, who are you representing?” I ask. Please let it not be another start-up. I’ve seen start-ups get locked into unprofitable entanglements, mutually reinforcing one another’s delusions and avoiding the restaurant bill.

“I’m sorry, I can’t share that. Confidential.”

He enjoys saying that. “Fair enough. What do you need to do?”

“Well, my client…”

That’s a neat phrase. I should say “my company” instead of “we”. It would make me sound less co-dependent.

“… my client wants access to the dreams, of course.”

“How much user information do you need? We have to protect our customers’ privacy, but we can give you broad metadata on ages, genders…?”

“Yes! That might be useful,” he says, as though it’s only just struck him.

What kind of company doesn’t care about its potential customers? I’d have thought he’d have a long list of demands, and we’d need to haggle. I could tell him that most of our data’s self-report, and a lot of people lie. And some of them plagiarise their dreams. If I did, would he jump to his feet and yank his funding away?

“I’d need to know where and when the dreams happen,” he says.

“We can do that. Get the data from the phone app, if the users have enabled it.”

“And I want to search keywords. And this is informal – it’s not a deal-breaker – but I love your visuals. They’re so intelligent.”

Jesus, I blush at that. “Angharad does the artwork. But we can definitely set up custom displays for you. Rather than just dropping all the data in your lap every morning.”

“Oh, that doesn’t sound too terrible.” He’s flirting. Isn’t he?

“It would help if I knew what you’re planning to do with it?”

“Top secret things, I’m afraid.”

“They’re the only things worth doing.” Feeble joke.

Julian calls me in, and I explain that this is about the cheapest request, tech-wise, we could have. Then we musical-chairs so Julian and Oliver are closeted together again.

I want to phone Monifa and ask if she thinks the mysterious new income stream is flirting with me, but we’ve hardly spoken since our nearly-a-row about the government. I can’t just call her to pick her brains. It would look selfish.

“Psst,” says Nate. When I look his way, he mouths: it’s so my monkey.

“What?” Is he saying the deal’s dodgy? Is it cockney rhyming slang?

He scoots over on his chair and whispers, “It’s so much money!”

There’s a double surprise: the idea of riches, that old mirage, actually within reach.

Also, Nate’s chest brushing against my arm makes me want to hold him.

He pulls away. He hasn’t noticed. I don’t want Nate, ugh. It’s just a recent sea-change in me: on the train this morning, I nearly rested my head on another commuter’s shoulder. I’ve been living in my mind for too long. When was the last time I did anything with my body? Probably on the rollercoaster at Southend.

I put in my earpieces and press the random dream button to soothe myself. That intimate-distant feeling, and the confetti of images. One dream is nothing. You need three or more to resonate together. With a hundred, you can do anything.

I’m being dragged into the quicksand

I’m fighting with my brother

I’ve forgotten about my goldfish and they’ve had so many babies that the whole tank looks like marmalade

I’m kissing Nabokov and I tell him it would be weird, and my boyfriend would mind. His lips

Julian’s laugh booms out behind his office door and I click away. That was an adult dream. I usually exclude them from my streams. Not safe for work.

But dreams are my work.

I can hear Oliver’s light pleasant voice from inside Julian’s office, but the words are inaudible.

I listen to a dozen filthy dreams. You couldn’t use them as porn. They’re explicit enough, but they erupt into weirdness too often; you’d need to keep your free hand on the pause button.

I realised I had bitten through his leg.

I had to concentrate hard to keep her from changing shape, and eventually I was just stroking a large Labrador.

Julian bursts out of the office, all smiles. “Lunch?”

To me, ‘lunch’ is a cream cheese bagel, plus almond burfi from a Brick Lane sweet shop if I’m lucky. So it’s a struggle to look nonchalant while climbing into a taxi with Julian, and scrambling out again at a restaurant with real tablecloths.

Oliver sits next to me, but we don’t speak much. Julian monopolises, Nathan supports, Oliver and I laugh in the right places. When Julian goes to pay the sizeable bill, and Nathan goes to the luxurious toilets, Oliver says: “I rather hoped we’d go somewhere in Shoreditch.”

“Oh, Julian wouldn’t take you to a ten pound noodle joint.” I shouldn’t joke with him, but thank goodness, he smiles.

“I’d wanted to see some of the famous hipsters.” Wistful, like a tourist talking about the Northern Lights.


“Your people – your culture – it fascinates me…”

“I’ll be in the Reliance tonight.” A statement of fact and yet also a bold offer. “From five.” I’m gambling that Julian and Nathan have drunk enough over lunch to leave the office early.

I shouldn’t be messing around with an income stream. I’m living in a box-room in a shared house. I don’t have anywhere to take a posh boy. I’m getting way ahead of myself.

* * *

The Reliance is a tricky place to flirt with someone I shouldn’t be seen with. It’s packed out and ridiculously loud, so I have to shout my witticisms as though I’m trying to charm a political rally.

“You came!” yells Oliver. “I thought Julian might make you work late.”

“God, he’s not my dad!” I get the teenage tone exactly right, and Oliver throws his head back to laugh. He has a really good Adam’s apple.

He tells me all about himself and at the end I’m none the wiser. As far as I can make out, he circles the globe like a migratory swan, doing inexplicable jobs for unnameable people. He says ‘you know how it is’ a lot, and I don’t, and I think he knows I don’t. I hope he’s teasing me, not rubbing it in.

My life feels very short, by comparison. Shamefully, I borrow scripts from my opponents to describe myself, talking about angel investors and big sales and Incredible Journeys.

I can’t keep it up, and in the lull, we both look around the pub.

“There are your hipsters,” I say.

“Marvellous! You’ve not grown the beard yourself, though?”

“Not likely. I’d get strip-searched every time I visit an airport.” Bit heavy for a first date, but he smiles. “Anyway, I’m tired of hipsters.”

“Ah. Are you also tired of life?”

Is he offering me a suicide pact? Oh. Yes. I get the reference. Tired of London.

I talk about the database, because what else do I have to say? But at least I’m passionate about it. Not just a Shoreditch boaster with one eye on the lifeboats.

I tell him about The Night Before Christmas, the big push we ran. We were scared that even kids put their phones away when they visit their families. We told them to update their dreams before they got up, before they opened their stockings (Monifa wrote some really persuasive copy). We managed it – nearly as many log-ins as usual, and rich, weird, seasonal dreams.

And with answering passion, Oliver tells me what he wants to do. He’s looking for keywords, but also for complex patterns, resonating across different fields – time, location, dream precedents. He wants to find order in complexity – not rigid uniformity, but agile, lively outputs. He’s the only person who’s close to understanding my beloved site.

In the end, my box-room doesn’t matter, because the posh boy has a hotel room in Islington.

Our progress through the marble lobby, up the sweeping staircase, has the surreal quality of a dream. Oliver in his linen suit is the White Rabbit and I’m chasing him. Not from lust, but from dream-logic. Follow your passion, I catch myself thinking.

And later: is this my passion? It’s passion. Is it mine?

* * *

When I leave the hotel it’s misty grey morning. At least the cold prickles help me shake off the dreams of drowning. I wait in the doorway of Marks & Sparks until it opens, buy a new shirt. I struggle into the shirt in the work toilet and I’m looking suave at my desk (with a crease over each nipple) when Nate arrives. Not suspicious at all. “Morning!”

“Dil. Don’t fuck it all up.”

I resent the remark, but I know what he means, and I won’t. It’s not part of my dream right now. We’re on the cusp of success, and it’s another six months? Or a year? Of hard work, but I can do that. I can’t start a relationship with anyone. Certainly not with an income stream.

I don’t contact Oliver before he comes in the following week. We don’t shake hands, and we work hard all day, and then he asks me for dinner at Vanilla Black because he noticed I ordered vegetarian food the last time we ate.

“I admire what you’re doing so much,” he says, over pied de bleu souffle. “Making something new from new things. I’m a superannuated parasite by comparison.”

I’m putty in his hands.

I lie awake that night, with Oliver a drowsy weight draped over me, and I think: Is my lust aspirational? Is it class war, internalised racism? He went to Eton, for heaven’s sake. He’s from the same set as Julian. Oh no. I’m having sex with Daddy. I’ve got to stop.

My phone pings on the bedside table. Oliver’s head is resting on my shoulder, but I manage to stretch for the phone and open my email without waking him. It’s Julian, announcing that with this new income, we can all have a raise.

I think straight away of a one-bedroom flat, maybe just off the flower market, a mile or so from the office. So I can work late. So Mam can visit.

Not so that Oliver can stay with me when he’s in town.

* * *

I build such a supple, gorgeous dashboard for Oliver. He wanted keyword searches – I go far beyond that, weaving a web of semantic sensitivities. When he’s searching for “dog,” he won’t just be offered a tedious list of synonym searches (include hounds, puppies, pups?) but a delicate investigation into everything canine. The quintessence of dog.

I work with Angharad to make Oliver’s dashboard unique. An antique look – outputs on tiny brass dials, flickering from green to red. Hourglasses, with the sand flowing back and forth.

I work with Monifa on the words. I’m glad to have her back in the office. I buy her doughnuts.

“What’s this Oliver person doing with the database?” she asks.

“I don’t know.” Damn, I should have said it’s confidential. “I don’t know everything,” I add, too late.

“And you’re OK with that? You’re going to let him have all the info when you’ve got no idea – ”

“He’s not doing anything dodgy.”

“He could be a middleman for the government.”

I don’t reply. I expect her to double down on me, but she sighs.

“You’re always plugged in, Dil, whenever I see you. Listening to those things.”

“The dreams? Lots of people are, these days.” It’s true. People use the dreams to get to sleep, to cheer themselves up. We have star users, big name dreamers. This grime kid from Croydon called Morf grabs his favourite dreams, weaves them together and makes raps out of them, a couple of times a week. He’s got five million followers.

“Do you ever think that’s weird?”

The really weird thing is that Monifa already knows the answer to this, because she wrote it. Other people have accused Sandpit users of being voyeuristic, exploitative. Julian asked Monifa for a statement we could use in response, which she reluctantly assembled. So I’m going to mutter Monifa’s words back to her.

“It’s all public information. The users put it out there.”

“I’m not worried about the users, Dil. Sod them. It’s what it’s doing to you. You’re like a zombie!”

“That’s not fair! I’m just working really hard! I don’t do anything else…” I stumble, thinking about what I’ve been doing most recently.

“What is it?”

“I’ve done something a bit stupid.”

“Oh my God, you’ve slept with that posh bloke!”

I knew she was smart. “I was really lonely! I never meet anyone – it was like I was drowning and I just -”

“Grabbed a buoy?” She smirks. “No wonder you don’t care what he’s up to.”

She agrees to write the text anyway, and I’m pleased she can’t afford to have principles and has to come down off her high horse. Which is messed up of me, but I’m still a bit angry at her.

I don’t need her approval. I’ve got Oliver and the dataset. I show Oliver his dashboard and he’s gratifyingly enchanted.

“Oh, that’s – you didn’t have to do that. That’s adorable.’

I am so smug I might burst.

Oliver takes me to the opera. It’s not something I’d ever pictured myself doing but it’s not bad, and I’m not paying, so I’m not complaining. Then he comes back to my new flat and admires the small kitchen/living room, the tight spiral staircase, the new double bed.

* * *

After Oliver leaves, the next morning, I lie in bed. My dreams have been turbulent, not quite nightmares, but full of skirmishes. Maybe sex or maybe fighting. Which is a pretty transparent metaphor for my situation: I can’t have a boyfriend, I haven’t got time for a boyfriend, and I certainly can’t date an income stream.

I crank up my version of Oliver’s interface and watch the dials quiver. Is he observing them, on his train home? What does he get from them?

The site’s pretty quiet at night, while the dreams are happening. Then from seven a.m., the needles dance as people dictate their dreams over breakfast. There’s another boost in the evening. The peaks are smoothing out as we go global – we’re big in Japan but we’ve not cracked America.

I’ve started to upload, myself. Just fragments, posted to a throwaway account. I want to get the full user experience. Today I dictate some odds and sods about thuds and struggling, and I feel better for doing it.

One of Oliver’s dials is climbing into the red. It’s labelled against. It’s the one which reports on dreams about conflict; all the cognate terms are hooked together to create a net. And this morning, in the net, there’s something heavy.

I pull up the archive – two-thirds of them are flagged as nightmares. But when I view the dreams, there’s no pattern, just the usual jumble.

Oliver’s other dials say heat, cut off, incoming, shaking, sea and others. I don’t know what any of them mean. It’s part of our flirtation, him teasing me and me feigning a lack of interest. I open a few of them up – visitors, angels and beasts – to see the associated common words, from today’s dreams. Tea, inspectors. Wings, guardian, radiant. Fur, nuzzle, unicorn. Very nice nonsense.

Now I set myself a dreamstream from the sea dial. I use it a lot. There’s always loads of activity on it.

I carry my stream of sea dreams with me, and wander out to buy breakfast. My usual route’s blocked by police incident tape. I keep trying to get round, taking the next available road, hitting tape until I realise the pastry shop is the epicentre of the disruption.

I ask a policeman, hiding my nosiness behind a neighbourly air: just moved in, everything OK? He says there’s been a fight but he’s too professional to offer details.

“It was carnage,” says a short unshaven man with no such scruples. He saw it: a proper brawl, a dozen guys, heads banged on pavements. There’s been a lot of that recently, in Shoreditch. The free newspapers blame bad drugs and hot days. I walk away while the man’s still talking.

I wonder if these fights are the first signs of the tide properly turning. There’s not enough money around, and not enough optimism to fill the gaps. Overstretched hopes collapsing, leaving people wild and violent. I bet there were a lot of fights in failing gold-rush towns.

Then again: craft beer is strong. The fights don’t need a deeper explanation.

I go back to the flat, back to bed. Barricade myself in pillows. Open up the dials again for some more soothing babble, but the words get murkier. Inspector, scrutinise. Sword, Principality, coruscate. Nest, harrier, vermin. I scrape away that top layer, go deeper into the chains. There’s no comfort there. Intrude, invade. Wrath, radiant, judgment. Tusk, tooth, carrion crow.

* * *

One last Sandpit meeting with Oliver, one more night together in my flat. I haven’t invited anyone else into my bed, in between. If I visualised the data of my love life there would be a years-long flat patch, then one big bar.

I’ve been dreaming about sex at night, daydreaming about it at work. Not Oliver, specifically. I just feel a pull; I lean towards something, all the time. I shouldn’t have given in to it. I didn’t miss it, before.

“Do you want to know what I do with your data?” says Oliver in bed.

My heart sinks because this means he’s not coming back, doesn’t it? The secret was part of our flirting. So he’s saying he doesn’t want to flirt with me anymore.


He’s lying curled up close around my back. I thought he’d be very crisp and cool, like hotel sheets, but he isn’t. He’s very tender. Which is disconcerting, when you’re not in love.

“Oh go on, let me tell you. There’s no point in having secrets if nobody’s interested.”

Maybe he wants us to share the secret. Maybe he wants us to go into business together. That could be my passion. “Tell me.”

“My clients are interested in catastrophic events.”

“What events?”

“World-ending things. Or civilisation-ending. I use your dataset as a kind of barometer, so I can warn them.”

“That’s bonkers. Dreams aren’t predictive. Have you read them? They’re all about drowning and incest and public speaking.”

“They don’t need to be prophetic. I do all the interpretation, the dreams are just… sensitive. You know how animals run away from earthquakes?”

But my dataset isn’t a rabbit stampede. “People pay you for that?”

“It’s a tiny risk. But with huge potential consequences. So they pay me a teeny-tiny proportion of their massive-massive wealth.” He sounds so calm and sensible. His skin is warm all along my back.

“Was it all your idea?”

“Pretty much. The Tokyo earthquake set me off…”

Tokyo again. I’d thought it was my gorgeous interface that had attracted Oliver.

“Tokyo isn’t true.”

“Check your records.” He kisses my shoulder.

“That’s mad,” I say. “That can’t work.”

“It works. I had to analyse dreams from around the time of a lot of unpleasant events. But it works. People notice more than they think. Then that affects their dreams in ways I can interpret.”

“I don’t believe you.”

I feel him shrug. “My clients believe me.”

“But how long are people going to keep paying you, when the world doesn’t end?”

I squirm round in his arms so I can see his face. I should have done that sooner; he’s not amused.

“Dil, you work in Shoreditch. My work makes more sense than – than a robot shoe you turn on with your bloody phone.” He’s so out of touch, even his bad tech ideas are from the noughties.

Too late, I realise that he might love his data as much as I love mine.

He’s not my boyfriend. I understand that. But I’d thought that he was clever, and that we were collaborating. Now I suspect he’s a deluded con-man.

“This whole part of town’s built on ridiculous fantasy,” he says. “It couldn’t survive without it.”

“That’s optimism. It’s not the same thing.”

“It’s optimism combined with incredibly long odds – that’s fantasy.”

“Some people make it big!”

“Vanishingly few, Dil.” Now he sounds withering, worldly-wise. As though I’m young and foolish and I’ll grow out of working for a proper business, and start hunting unicorns like him. He’s not just deluded, he’s being a dick.

I don’t like feeling angry and patronised and heart-sick and hope-dashed, so I go out to buy brunch. I want to call Monifa and cry on her shoulder. But she warned me he was dodgy.

As I walk, Oliver diminishes in my mind. His eccentricity makes him more fallible, less intimidating. I buy expensive pastries and go back to the flat and kiss him. He’s not my boyfriend and I might not see him again, so I may as well do everything I’ve ever daydreamed about doing with him.

* * *

Two days later, I haven’t contacted Oliver. I don’t believe that dreams are stirred by a wind that blows from future disasters. Whenever I think of his ideas I feel tired. That makes it harder to do my job.

Oliver hasn’t contacted me, either.

I don’t sleep well. I still listen to the dreams as I fall asleep, but they don’t soothe me like they used to; when I upload my own, I have to tick the boxes for ‘nightmare’ and ‘adult’.

Julian yells at Nate all the time. “We need some good publicity!” Morf the dream rapper has been found on Brighton beach. He might have jumped off the pier.

One night I run Oliver’s dashboard backwards, take it back to the days before the Tokyo earthquake. To utterly disprove his stupid theory.

The dials are red: shaking, falls. It doesn’t prove anything.

Monifa’s verbal outputs say: significant words today are crushed, dust, lost. I hide that from all users.

From my email trash I salvage the message from the recruitment company which I’d deleted the previous week.

* * *

I’ve never called a recruiter before, and I don’t know my lines – is it like being a secret agent, or on a blind date? But she sweeps in and butters me up very briskly. “You must know we’re really pleased to hear from you.”

I’m phoning the recruiters from a shop doorway on Redchurch Street, because I have to be at work in ten minutes, and every time a car goes past I cup the phone. Pretending I’m indoors, pretending I’m more of a master of my destiny than this.

“So, there are – some jobs, maybe, and I could do them?” I ask. Nice one, Dil, super smooth.

“’Scuse me.” A bearded man nudges me aside to open up his shop, which sells raw denim. I settle in the next doorway along the street, for a shop which sells raw chocolate.

“Definitely. We have a really keen position with a company interested in meeting you.”

So far, I’ve been motivated by queasy panic. But of course, I’m also running towards somewhere. Could I quit Sandpit and hop into a better gig? A lowlier role, but in a bigger tech company. One of those converted warehouse offices with a ball-pit and free smoothies.

“It’s good news. It’s Natwest!”

I picture the little Natwest branch on Haxby High Street, back home. Dogs tied up outside, pens chained up inside. My friend Dave’s mum behind the counter.

“A bank?”

“Uh-huh. One of the fastest-growing multinational banks.”

“I’d thought, perhaps, it would be something else. A tech company. Or another start-up?”

“Right! Of course!” She’s as surprised as I am. “A lot of people we work with, in your situations – they really want to get out of start-ups. They really want to move to banks.”

Stupid not to have thought of it. I mean, you can even see bits of the City, the banking centre, from here – the Gherkin looms out from behind buildings like a big innuendo. I can’t imagine what the Natwest office would look like. I just see myself hanging in the air over London, in a misty glass cube.

“My start-up clients often want to buy a house, or have a kid. Or just have the weekend off!”

“Oh, I know how that feels!” I can’t even vaguely remember how that feels and I sound like an alien infiltrator.

“So, shall I set up a meeting?”

“Why not.” I’m so lacklustre. I say it again with gusto, to pretend it’s my catchphrase: “Why not! Go for it.” My Mam will be pleased, at least.

The recruiter offers me a preliminary interview the following day. “Lunchtime. So you can be a bit discreet – your boss doesn’t need to know.”

She doesn’t know I never take a lunchbreak for longer than it takes to buy a bagel.

* * *

At ten a.m. the following day, Nate scoots over on his chair and whispers: “Where’s the interview?”

“What interview?”

“Brand new shirt, Dil. You’ve got an interview. Unless you pulled last night. Look, I’m not prying…”

“You’re prying. I’m allowed to look for other jobs, aren’t I? And there isn’t anything you can offer me – ”

“We might get bought.”

“Flippin’ heck!”

Start-ups long to be bought. It’s pretty much the best way to exit. But start-ups get bought because they offer something that another company wants, or because they’re competition. Surely we’re no threat to anyone, and why would anyone want to absorb us?

“Why would anyone buy us?” I whisper.

Acquhire.” Nate sounds like he’s choking.

“What, acquire-to-hire? Who would they want to hire?”

“All of us. You’re in demand as much as Julian and me.”

“But – they could just offer me a job. They don’t need to buy Sandpit to get me.”

“Where’s your loyalty, Dil?”

“What loyalty?”

“OK, where’s your selfishness? If someone buys Sandpit to hire us, you get a salary, and a honking big pay-off.”

This could be it. The dream come true. I can actually feel my heart hammering, and my face flushes and I don’t care.

“Would they keep the site up? Would they close it down?” I picture the front page of Sandpit plastered with one of those miserable, mockable notices: Thank you for being part of our incredible journey. We’ll always remember the creativity and community that made Sandpit so special! Now get your shit off the site by Tuesday before we nuke it.

“I can’t guarantee it.”

That gives me a pang. Could I let the site go? Could I shut it down? The cloud capped tags, the gorgeous messages; the solemn algorithms, the great graph itself…

“It’s not a bank, is it?”

Nate squints at me with suspicion. “Why on earth would it be a bank, Dil? It’s a tech company.”

I imagine myself in the warehouse office. I’m at one of those two thousand dollar sitting/standing hydraulic desks, sipping a smoothie. But who’s that, lurking by the ball-pit? “Nate, I don’t want to work with Julian indefinitely.”


“By ‘indefinitely’, I mean ‘ever again’.”

“Why not, do tell.”

“You know why! He just smarms around showing off while we do the work.” And (I want to add) you two bicker all the time, and I thought it was because of the stress and the money, but I reckon if you got bought by Google you’d lie in the same jacuzzi in Palo Alto and argue.

Nate blinks, as though the idea of escaping from Julian conflicts with his programming. Then he gives a tiny nod, more like a twitch. “I’ll bear that in mind during my negotiations.”

“You won’t tell Julian about my interview?”

“What interview? Look, he’ll notice if you sneak out. But I can distract him. When do you need to leave?”


At 11:40 a.m., Nate picks up a sheaf of papers and crosses to Julian’s door.

By 11:45 a.m., they’re shouting. My noise-cancelling earpieces can’t blot them out.

“Well, one of us didn’t have any sodding choice!” Nate shouts, with a melodramatic tone. Julian is more bass and rumbling so I can’t make out the words. I assume he says something about how everyone has choices, because then there’s Nathan again, pretty much shrieking. “Not after you screwed up the last two companies!”

There’s some inaudible back and forth as to whose fault that was. I imagine each company took more than a year to complete its nosedive, so compressing the incriminations into five minutes is impressive. Nathan is putting in nice rhetorical flourishes: ‘I told you but ooh no, you wanted to…” Sometimes singsong bits, and sometimes I think he’s repeating things Julian has said back to him, in a stupid voice. Classic.

Then Nate turns up the volume, so I can hear his knock-out punch: “How was I ever going to get a job with Dial-a-Dog on my fucking CV?”

Dial-a-Dog is a blast from the past. In the early days of the internet, it was one of those companies that achieved fame through failure. I want to look it up but Julian would catch me at it. I rack my brain. It was a bit like InterFlora – InterFauna? Could you send a basket of bunnies, a bouquet of white hamsters?

I rock in my chair, uneasy, and feel the lovely smooth action of the chair. I wonder if the chair came from Dial-a-Dog.

“Some of us,” bellowed Julian, reaching at last a level of anger that makes him audible, “Feel a sense of responsibility!”

“Some of us like to play God!

It’s no use, I can’t resist. I whip out my phone and cradle it, hide it under the desk and look it up on that. Dial-a-Dog: it was initially imagined as a way to send animals to friends, but it pivoted when every humane society protested and the police intervened. It became a way, instead, for pet owners to lend their animals to someone else in the neighbourhood. Dachshunds as a service! Because who didn’t, sometimes, want to hold a puppy?

I’d still been at school when Mr Rupert Smythe used Dial-a-Dog to request every long-haired cat in Kensington be sent to Mrs Alicia Smythe, for an hour on a Saturday afternoon. Twenty Burmese and Persians were delivered. It’s our anniversary, he said, as he ushered them all in. It’ll be a surprise.

And it was, because Mr and Mrs Smythe were divorcing, and Mrs Smythe went into anaphylactic shock as soon as she’d hung her coat up. She lay on the hall floor and watched a big Maine Coon clawing chunks out of her sofa. KILLER KITTEN FIRM DELIVERS PURR-FECT CRIME, said the Mail on Sunday. Although one of the owners had popped back early and stabbed Mrs Smythe with an epi-pen, and she’d survived. CATTEMPTED MURDER, said the Daily Star.

I black out my phone screen three times from guilt, and return each time from horrified fascination. This was the car-wreck that had preceded Sandpit – or preceded the company which had preceded Sandpit? – which had welded Julian and Nate into unholy acrimony.

Nate is using the biggest key he owns to wind up the boss.

At ten to noon, Julian strides through the office. His face is crimson; he doesn’t even glance at me before he’s out of the door.

Nate emerges, hair wilder than usual. “Right on schedule! He won’t be back this afternoon, I shouldn’t think.”

I can’t stop staring. He rolls his eyes. “We never actually killed anyone.”

“Was that the company slogan? Did you get Monifa to write it?”

“Look, I’m helping you out, here. I’ve got rid of Daddy. You can toddle off to your treasonous job interview.”

“Why are you helping?”

“While you’re out, I can go back to the buyer and negotiate about whether Daddy’s part of the deal. I’ll probably know by the end of the day what’s possible. So don’t do anything rash, OK? Dil?”

Ping! An email from Oliver. Saying: call me!

I really wish he hadn’t. I need to run through my responses to typical interview questions, casually list the three times I’ve shown Leadership and Initiative.

I step outside to phone Oliver.

“Dil! What are you up to, today?”

He’s a business associate. I can’t tell him I’m thinking of jumping ship. See, Nate, I do have a sense of loyalty. “Not much.”

“Come to Derbyshire.”


“Come to Coton in the Elms. Get a train from Euston to Tamworth, then a cab. I’ll pay for it.”

“Why?” He doesn’t sound passionate, or romantic, or even polite.

“I’ve got a little cottage in the countryside. Wouldn’t you like to see it?”

“I’m not really into cottaging.”

“Dil, something’s coming. But it’s not one of the big ones. A little something.”

“A catastrophic event? How can that be ‘little’?”

“Well, it’s not the end of the world. It’s just the end of… some stuff. Look, I can help you. I know what to do.”

“You’re mad.”

“Oh, that’s nice. Here I am, asking you to move in with me…”

“Are you?”

“Dil, in two hours’ time I’ll be in a stone cottage at the furthest point inland in the country. A long way from the Thames estuary in particular. Do you want to be with me?”

It’s too big to consider, so I fixate on something smaller. “Are you supposed to be telling me this?”

“It’s confidential. But my London clients are all jetting off to Xinjiang, and none of them offered to take me along, so fuck ’em.”

Is he drunk? “I’ll think.”

“Think quickly.”

I see myself in a ball-pit. I see myself in a glass cube at Natwest. I see myself in the garden of an English cottage, menaced by bees. I shake all three visions out of my head and go back to the office.

I look up Coton in the Elms. The map shows miles and miles of fields, and The Honeypot Tea Rooms. I look up Xinjiang. It’s the furthest point inland in the world.

I go back to Oliver’s dashboard. Half of his dials are red. One is sea, one is beasts.

I open ten related dreams at random. Each one is a nightmare. Their similarities are more than coincidence, more than Monifa’s discursive norms.

taste salt in the air but couldn’t see the waves

hauling itself towards me. I couldn’t move and

wet, and stumbling as though it had too many

some kind of gills and my legs wouldn’t

I want to be further inland.

No, I refuse to give in to Oliver’ panic. He’s being too literal. I want to explain to him: dreams are like the sea – a parallel world, half-known, always shifting – which is why the sea washes into so many dreams. You can’t look at a couple of rough nights and assume that everyone’s going to wake up underwater.

I drill down into the geographical data. There’s a huge concentration of nightmares round London. But that could just be user distribution, and timing: London’s big, awake, and uploading.

I’ll be late for the interview if I don’t leave now.

I take the train, changing from the funky, orange Overground line full of hipsters to the serious, silver Jubilee line, which the bankers use. I speed out to a new building near Canary Wharf. The office isn’t a misty glass box, although it isn’t far off. Nobody asks me daft psychology questions at this interview. They know their stuff. It’s a bit corporate, but there’s nothing wrong with that. Mam would be so proud to see me here that I almost take a selfie.

“Would you mind the change of sector?” the head of the panel asks.

“No, I’d be excited!” I lie. “I was able to take on a lot of responsibility at Sandpit because…” Because they were chaotic idiots? “Because of the relatively informal structure. But it’s not like I’m in love with start-ups,” I sneer.

Everyone chuckles. I make extravagant claims about my abilities and realise they’re true.

I should go back to the Sandpit office, and work through the afternoon. Julian could turn up again and raise hell if I’m missing. But when the train slows to a halt at my stop, I don’t move. I watch the doors close, and ride to Euston instead.

As I come up from the underground into the station, I notice I’m jogging along the concourse to catch the train to Tamworth.

My carriage is empty. I pull a technology magazine from my bag and flick through it. It’s glossy and upbeat. No need to look back, it tells me. Don’t worry about past failures. Look forwards! Go faster! I set my dreamstream to positive words: conquer, surmount, overcome. A motivating burble flows from my earbuds.

The outskirts of London give way to fields. The light’s fading, hours too soon for dusk; the sun’s still there, a dim disk in an overcast sky.

I check Oliver’s dials. I pull up the data, and find the dials stopped being representative hours ago. If they’d been analogue devices, they’d have over-clocked, swept back through leaf-green and amber and up to red for a second time.

I press my forehead against the window. In the premature dusk, I can see cattle grazing. I’m out in the countryside, out of London, out of danger.

I should phone Monifa, give her a chance to leave town. But what can I say? That guy you warned me about is some kind of occult con-man and he thinks London’s going to drown. It’s not as if I have proof. Wouldn’t my phone be making more noise, if anything serious was going down?

I look at my phone. It’s been turned off since the interview.

I turn it back on with dread. Are horrors swarming from the Thames? Does today’s news resemble last night’s dreamstream? Will it ping like a ricocheting bullet?

No bad news from London.

I call Monifa anyway.

“Hey, Mon. Should I go and work for a bank?”

“Hi, Dil! I’m fine, how are you?”

“Oh. Sorry. It’s just a bit of a shock. I might be getting a new job.”

“Nice to have options.”

“They didn’t offer me options. Oh! You mean – ordinary options, not start-up options. Yes.”

“I did. So, what’s the problem with having ordinary options?”

“If I’m not working for Sandpit, am I going to be really boring?”

“Hmm. Were you boring before you started this job?”

Really boring. That’s why I came to Shoreditch, to find something to be passionate about, so I’d be less boring.”

“You wanted to want something?” She sighs. “That’s like the opposite of Buddhism.”

“I’m not a bloody Buddhist, am I? I’m a bloody Hindu.”

“Dil, I don’t mind you talking about your job, but to be honest – it’s not your best side.”

I’m disconcerted. “I thought being passionate made people interesting.”

She laughs. “You sound like Cosmo Magazine! If that was true, Shoreditch would be the most interesting place in the world. Is it?”

Yes. Maybe? “No?”

“Julian really wants things. Is Julian the most interesting person in the world?”

“Nooo.” He doesn’t really want things, though, he just expects to get them. And Julian fears losing them. I’m the only one with a pure keen flame of passion.

“What’s that noise?” Monifa asks. “Are you on a train?”

“I’m going to Tamworth.” For increasingly incoherent reasons.

“Look, I’m working now. Call me when you’re back, we can catch up. Properly, two-way, not you using me as an agony aunt, alright?”

Despite the scolding, Monifa has calmed me down. She’s right, I have options. That sense of choice makes Sandpit seem bearable –I could stick it out a bit longer, and keep expanding my site, its functions, its marvels…

My interview adrenaline leeches away, and the false anxieties Oliver planted in me have turned to anger. I phone him.

“Nothing’s happening in London, Olly! And now I’ve walked out of work because of you, and it’s all bollocks.”

“You’re on a train now?”

“Yes. I’m about ten miles from you. Are you still there?”

“Yes, but – hurry up.”

“How?” A noise from further down the carriage – doors slamming, shuffling. “Hang on, the conductor’s coming.”

“Good. Tell him to make the driver go faster.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Olly. It calls at all these small stations…”

“Fuck the small stations!”

While Oliver advises me to commandeer the train, I fish in my pocket to find my ticket.

“Can you book me a taxi?” I cut through Oliver’s hijack fantasies to ask.

“I’ll fetch you.”

“Wow. You’re going to leave your secret underground lair, just to-”

A dragging, lopsided sound at the far end of the carriage.

Not the conductor.

It’s rough cloth – or scaled, loose skin – hauled over wet stone. A familiar weakness spreads up my legs.

I hurl myself sideways to break the paralysis. I fall to the carriage floor, huddle against the wall. My shoulder’s killing me, but the dragging sound has ceased and I can move again.

Oliver is silent. No, my earpieces are missing. I pat the floor around me, grip the earbuds and stuff them back in my ears. “Dil? Dil!

“Oliver, it’s here,” I whisper. “It’s on the train.”

He doesn’t ask what it is. He whispers back: “You’ll be OK.” A pathetic reassurance from a man whose business is the end of the world. “You’re nowhere near the epicentre. It’ll just be a strand, a fragment.”

But there’s no bad news from London.

“Olly, what if we’re the epicentre?”

“Us? Why would we be?”

“Not you and me. Us. Sandpit.”

Memories close in: the art show, the dragging in the corridor. The fights around the street where I live, where I work, that I blamed on long summer evenings of drinking. Disturbances circling me, closing in.

Huddled on the floor of the train, I know what the dragging thing is, approaching. It’s a nightmare I’ve had a dozen times but I don’t know how it ends because I always wake. It’s a thing with sagging skin and thick fins crawling out of the sea towards me.

But the sea is not the sea. It’s a symbol – for dreams, for waking, for evolution. Something struggling to haul itself from one state to another. A new kind of creature, heaved out of the dream-sea.

I hear a high fine note that I recognise.

“Can you hear it, Olly?” I mean: is it real? Is it just me? Let it just be me. It’s the sound of something dragging along the floor, it’s a tugging in the air, a current that’s carrying me away.

“I can’t hear anything. The train’s too loud.”

It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if the creature has pulled itself into the waking world, or if I’m dreaming without sleeping. Either way, I don’t know how to escape.

The tug intensifies and mashes me against the seating. The whine is deafening, and it joins with the sound of scraping metal, and a long hiss. It’s the brakes of the train. The tugging sensation was the slowing of the train. A sans serif sign in the gloaming tells me, thank God, we’re at Tamworth station.

I struggle to my feet. “Open up, open the fuck up.” I punch the door button three times, spill out of the train and charge through the station ticket barriers. My knight in shining armour leaning on a car by the curb.

He reaches over to me and pulls the earpieces from my ears.

“Hello, Dil.”

The countryside is very quiet.

“I think Sandpit might have caused Tokyo,” I tell him.

* * *

“Isn’t it adorable?”

There are actual white roses growing round the door of his cottage. The sky’s so overcast they’re luminescing in the gloom.

“If you like that sort of thing.”

“Doesn’t everyone? Don’t you dream of escaping to the countryside?”

“I grew up on t’moors, I dreamed about escaping from the countryside.” Mocking him calms me down.

As he ducks through the low doorframe, I notice that the stone walls are very thick. Defensive, robust. They’re the point of this place, not the roses or the wood-burning Aga.

The walls don’t reassure me. Not now I know what’s happening.

Oliver thinks that Sandpit can predict the future. That’s rubbish. My database, my lovely database, doesn’t foresee disasters.

I think it causes disasters.

It runs dreams through a hundred minds – users listening to dreams, then dreaming, then uploading those dreams to be heard again. Churning the dreams, intensifying them. The cycle creates a whirlpool.

The whirlpool sucks things through.

“What would you like?” asks Oliver, resolutely normal. “Coffee? Slice of sponge?”

“Have you got broadband?”

“I have a LAN; I’m not a peasant.”

“I need a monitor. Or two, if you’ve got two.”

I commandeer the kitchen table (stripped pine). I set up all the kit I can scrape together. When I sit, my hand sneaks out automatically and grasps my earpieces. As I slip them snugly into my ears, the wrongness floods back around me, thick and swirling.

I snatch my earpieces out, stuff them deep in my bag and zip it shut.

I need to prove something. I rack my brain for places around the world where there have been terrible disruptions in the last six months: tidal waves, wildfires, that one big volcano. I feel like a ghoul, but it’s vital. I check the dates, and crank back the timeframe on my dashboard. The associations blaze up, from a week before each incident. I test it again and again, get a chain of deathly associations: drench, drift; crisp, crackle; explode.

Oliver stands behind me, reading over my shoulder. He’s vibrating with the desire to say, told you so.

“But look.” Before he can get a word in, I point at the screen. “There are other disasters in other places, and nothing bad on the dials at all.”

“So what do you think’s happening?”

I bring up a map of user activity. “The bad stuff only shows up on the dials when the place is a hotspot for our users.”

Oliver pulls over a kitchen chair and sits next to me. “Dil, you realise you’ve leapfrogged over me in terms of ridiculous beliefs? I thought people might be able to sense an earthquake. Now you think you’ve invented an app that can make one happen?”

He’s got a point, so I ignore him.

“And if it’s about the number of users,” Oliver asks, “why wouldn’t it be affecting New York? Or Mexico City?”

“Perhaps we’re not big enough there? We were big in Japan. No, hang on…” I pull up more information. “This is it, I’ve got it! The people at those hotspots, they’re super-users. They don’t just post more, they’re not always banging on about themselves…”

“Don’t insult the customers, Dil.”

“The people at these locations are more connected users. They read more of other people’s dreams, they search more, and they have their dreamstreams playing all the friggin’ time.”

Creating a vortex. Dreams passing into dream passing into dreams. The truth had popped into my head on the train, and now I had proof of it.

Maybe dreams evolve this way naturally. You tell someone a dream, and then a fragment of it passes into their imagination, their dreams, and the current grows stronger and the boundary weakens. But in the world, it would happen so much more slowly – how often would you tell someone your dream? How often would you listen to theirs? Whereas we’ve been breeding them in captivity, factory farming them.

It was the wrong thing to do, and the wrong place to do it, in the thin air of a gold-rush town.

“The circulation, the concentration of dreams. That’s what it likes. That’s what brings it closer.”

Oliver raises one eyebrow. “It?”

The tugging tide, the dragging crawler. The thing I can feel, even now, whenever my hand twitches for my earpieces. “The thing that’s trying to come through.”

Oliver keeps his face blank. Either he doesn’t believe me, or he’s been hiding some pretty dark stuff.

I prod him. “When you thought Sandpit could predict things, why did you think it worked? I mean, you said it was like animals running away. Is it about vibrations, or chemicals, or…”

He shakes his head slowly. “Not quite.”

“Something else.”

“It’s best not to look directly at these things, you know, Dil.”

Condescending bastard. “That’s rich! You can afford not to look at them. They’re not bloody following you.”

“You’re overwrought. When did you last eat?”

He stands up and paces around the kitchen, assembling objects – crumpets, honey, side-plates – like a ridiculous English barricade against the darkness. Good, he’ll be occupied while I wrap things up. It’s weird to be working without the dreams burbling in my ear. I’m uninsulated, so whenever Oliver closes a cupboard door or sets down a cup, it jars me. I log into Sandpit’s VPN, start drafting an apology for the front page of the site. I wonder if I’ve got time to phone Monifa. She’d know how to phrase it. Thank you for being part of our execrable journey.

“What are you up to?” Oliver calls over. The crumpets smell lush but I don’t stop typing.

“I need to close down the Sandpit site.”

“Now, hang on! Hang on.” Oliver puts a hand on my arm. He’s too classy to grab me but this is an emphatic hint.

Bugger that. I keep typing. “Sorry about your business,” I say, as I type a different ‘sorry’ to the users, apologising in stereo.

“I’m not worried about that. You’ll be sacked.”

“I can get another job. There are loads of places I could work.” Natwest, for instance. A month from now I could have a photo of myself on a plastic card, hanging round my neck, in case I forget who I am.

“You can get another job now, as things stand,” Oliver argues. “You’re the CTO of a successful start-up. If you become a paranoid malcontent who sabotaged your own site, nobody will touch you.”

“Shit. But what else can I do? It’s still happening. The site helps it to happen!” I look across at the other monitor, the existing Sandpit front page, and my eye catches on some dreamtext that’s showcased there and the words wriggle into my mind. They’re genuine, they have that sincere but lopsided dream-voice, and the current tightens around me. The outside edge of the whirlpool brushes me. It wants me to read, to listen, to glut myself until I’m just a conduit. I wrench my head away.

Now Oliver actually holds my wrist, so I can’t type. “What do you need to do?” he asks.

“Shut it down.”

“All of it? Are there more and less dangerous parts? What is it you need to put an end to?”

I try to get out from the drag and the panic. I try to think. “The cycling, the re-cycling. The dream sharing. The most dangerous part is when people listen to each other’s dreams.”

“Dil, you built the site up bit by bit. Surely you can take some of those bits out.”

But it’s all interlocked and connected. It’s a city. How do you dismantle a city? Why can’t I summon up half the wit I used when I built this thing?

I breathe deep. “I suppose I could disconnect the dreamstream.”

“Good!” he says.

I crack open the code and start deleting.

“Wait!” he says.

I backpedal frantically.

“Users will notice. Nathan and Julian will notice. They could sue you, even.”

“There’s no other way!” I’m wailing because the starting and stopping, pull and release, is making me seasick.

“Didn’t you once tell me half the dreams were made up?”

“Jesus, I shouldn’t have. Did I?”

“Pillow talk.”

“Oh. I‘d forgotten. You’re right, half of it’s codswallop.” That used to annoy me, but maybe it was a blessing in disguise. Maybe it slowed the awful progress.

“If only you could just keep the made-up dreams.”

I reach the same conclusion just as he says it. “Genius!”

Oliver smiles a modest smile, the smug git. “I mean, I suppose it’s nearly impossible to tell the real dreams from the fake.”

“It’s not impossible. I can do it. Don’t stare at me, go and do something useful.”

I plough into the database. As Julian always insisted, we can’t tell people what dreams are. But I can certainly tell you what they’re not: things you stole, that someone else wrote, aren’t your dreams. So I set up a system to pluck up any dream that matches any other online text. A plagiarism alarm.

You know what else aren’t dreams? If something’s actually sexy and narratively coherent, it’s almost certainly not a dream. It’s carefully crafted porn which someone has slipped into the Sandpit, to find a wider audience for their fantasy. I get the system to scoop up the most popular dreams with sexy keywords.

I dam up these two pools – one pool for theft, the other for filth – and I leave them connected to all the functions of the site.

Every other dream, I disconnect.

I’ve not destroyed them. I haven’t deleted a word. You can still read any dream. You can still find them, if you look for them. But they won’t feed into anyone’s dreamstream, they won’t be recommended to any readers, they won’t be part of the dangerous churn.

I’ve walled off that great database, made a lagoon world of fears and non-sequiturs and mangled memories. I’ve never been more proud of it than in the moment I isolate it. So big! Much bigger than War and Peace. So communal, so sociable, and yet so personal. It was a city; it was Atlantis. It was so fucking weird it probably bent dimensions. Will I ever make anything as marvellous again?

I slump in the unyielding kitchen chair. I ache, and I miss my suave leather office seat. But I feel lighter, now I’ve fixed things.

“Done it,” I call. Oliver returns from the sitting room.

“Good. Your tea’s gone cold.”

“Can I have coffee?”

“Will anyone notice the difference? On the site?”

“Anyone coming in to work on the code would notice, but Nathan, or Julian? Never. And the users probably won’t notice, they’ll just… Over time, it’ll be less interesting. Less quirky. There’ll be more proper plots. Oh, and more rutting.”

“You don’t sound happy.”

“I was giving them dreams. Now I’m just giving them some kind of shoddy repackaged bollocks, and telling them it’s their dreams. Half of it’s stolen. Most of it’s tits.”

“Welcome to capitalism.” He sets a cup of coffee down next to my shaking fingers. “Are you better, now?”

We watch each other across the table. Each of us is convinced that the other is deluded. He thinks that dreams can predict the future, and I’m still reasonably sure that’s bobbins. I think that dreams can endanger the future, and he’s viewing me with amused indulgence.

He genuinely wants to know if I’m OK, though.

“I don’t know.” I try to unclench my shoulders. I think the sun’s got brighter, outside, and it’s so quiet. Shoreditch is never this quiet. There’s only a soft buzzing, which in my flat would be an Overground train passing or the router, but here I think it might be coming from actual bloody bees.

But even when I’m totally at rest, and everything’s silent, I can still feel that faint pull.

The things are still writhing, trying to get through. They’re further off now, or deeper down. But they’re restarting their incredible journey.

“It’s not just the site. It really is me, I think.”


“I’ll delete my account.”

“Oh no! The last resort!”


“Sorry!” He puts his fingers over his mouth.

I delete my Sandpit account. It takes sodding ages. Julian insisted people should have to press at least three buttons and reply to a confirmation email, and I resent that I didn’t stand my ground and make it simpler. Even though I’m CTO it’s like rooting out a tick. Finally, though, it’s dead and gone.

I smell coffee, cut grass, roses. I gulp down Oliver’s anaemic Americano. I don’t want to be here, in the ruins of my city. I want so fiercely to be back at my desk, with a fancy macchiato with sprinkles, facing a day of hard coding.

At the thought of that an invisible swell twists round me, and threatens to carry me away.

“Olly. There’s something snagged. Inside me. It’s got a hook in me.” Something to do with wanting: with dreams, desires, passion. “I need to resign.”

“You can’t resign! Look, I shouldn’t tell you this, but Nathan told me: Sandpit is going to be bought. You could get a huge pay-off, and end up working for a totally different company. A much better company…”

As he speaks, the undertow grows and grows until I need to grip the table.

Oliver springs up, to peer out of the window. “Is it me, or is it getting darker?”

I follow him out into the garden. Beyond the fence, there’s movement in the fields. Grass flattened in rippling waves, a silent wind whipping round and round the cottage.


My phone’s picked up a message, now it’s outside those thick stone walls. I see the recruiter’s name on the screen.

“Shit, it’s the bank job…”


“I went for an interview today, a corporate job.”

“Are you going to take it?”

I think about it. I think I will.

As soon as I think it, the wind drops.

It’s like flippin’ telekinesis. I picture myself in that bland, glassy office, and the clouds retract. I imagine trying on ties and spending a grand on a proper suit, and the undercurrent ebbs away and the sun peers out.


It’s an email from Nathan. I can read the first words, in the notification: Dil, we’ve done it! We’re going to be so

The tide rises to grip me and the birds fall silent.

I flick Nathan’s email away. “I have to take the bank job! I have to take the bank job.”

It makes perfect sense. Ever since I heard of Silicon Roundabout, I’ve wanted to work there. Like a kid turning up with a spade in the Yukon, I bought into the adventure. It was my dream. And it spiralled round with all my other dreams, and other people’s dreams, and brought us to this place. I have to end it.

“Sandpit was my dream job. That’s the problem.”

“Dil, you always got so angry when people confused ‘dreaming’ and ‘really wanting a thing’. Remember the headlines? Dream Boys, Dream Team…”

He puts his arm round me, which is nice, and helps with the shaking, but I think he’s doing it to show he’s reasonable while I’m coming unhinged, so I shrug it off again.

“I think they might be mixed up, for me.” In Shoreditch where the air is thin because everyone lives at such high altitudes of imagination. “It gets worse when I want things.”

Oliver sighs. “So you have to give up everything you want?”

“I need to try.”

“Then I’ll get us a drink. To celebrate your new position.”

I open the email. The recruiter says they like me, mentions an astronomical starting salary. I tap out a hasty acceptance.

Maybe Monifa can give me a slide show on how to do Buddhism.

Oliver returns with glasses of fizz, and we sit in the garden in deck chairs. We watch the unearthly louring clouds give way to fluffy cumulus, and the livid dimness turn to restful dusk. As long as I think about the bank job, and not about Silicon Roundabout, nothing tightens in my chest. Nothing creeps towards me through the fields of corn.

Oliver coughs, self-consciously.

“Dil, if I was to follow this to its logical conclusion – is it partly my fault?”

“What, because you invested in Sandpit?”

“No, I mean us. Am I a thing you want?”

He’s watching me with unaccustomed care.

I look at him in his linen trousers, in front of his country cottage. I think of the places he offered to take me – Glynbourne, the Hay on Wye book festival. Was he my dream boyfriend?

“No offence, but I don’t think so.” I meant to let him down gently, but he gives me such a quizzical look – how can I not be, for goodness’ sake – that I keep talking. “I mean, if I thought I’d end up with anyone, it would be some indie kid. We’d watch Fourth Doctor box sets and play Pandemic Legacy together.” I run out of ideas. I’ve put all my creative thinking into my job, not my love-life.

“I don’t know what those things are,” he admits. “Does that mean, then, that you don’t have to give me up?”

Of course! If he was my dream man, I’d have to leave. But he’s not. So I can stay. I reach over and hold his hand. “We’re alright.”

He sips his fizz. “Do you think it will go away? With time?”

I let myself feel the ebb and flow. My desire to return to my site knots up inside me and I smooth it out. Breathe in, breathe out. Renounce, renounce. Keep far from here the rippling wind, the troubled deeps.

“I don’t know,” I admit.

His hand grows heavy on mine in the silence. My relief turns to doubt. I can keep Oliver because I don’t really want him. But what if I did want him? What if I wanted someone else?

I conjure up my imaginary indie boyfriend again – treacherous, while I’m still palm to palm with Oliver. I imagine myself yearning and smitten, and as soon as I do, the same knots tighten inside and around me. The unseen things suck and heave.

It’s too dangerous. I’ll have to stick to mismatches like Oliver. Passionless exchanges, emotional monkhood.

God – if it’s my work life, and my love life, could it be my whole life? Do I need total tedium, along every bloody axis? Not wanting, not yearning, not raising the sea-drowned.

How could I live like that, desperate not to desire too much?

I untangle my hand from Oliver’s to start a text message. Monifa you have to tell me about Buddhism. She can help me solve it. I want to fix it, right now, I want, I want –

I press delete. I start the text again.

Hope you’re having a good week. Can we meet up? I’m interested in that thing you said about Buddhism.

I send the text. I tap the phone.

Breathe in, breathe out, and send another text: No hurry.

E. Saxey is a queer Londoner. Their fiction has appeared in Apex Magazine, Unsung Stories and Persistent Visions, and in anthologies including Reflections (Fox Spirit books) and Tales from the Vatican Vaults (Robinson). @esaxey on Twitter.

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